Get cracking


WHEN I WENT BACK after 16 years to the isolated valley in Arizona where I grew up, the biggest surprise was not the gaudy sprawl of Wal-Marts and Burger Kings between towns, or even the crumbling of the downtown, where big old Selna's market had become a sad little cafe. What stunned me most was stopping by the hippie health food store on the highway and finding a bin loaded with locally grown pecans.

In my 18 years in that moonscape, I'd never had the tiniest clue that one of my favorite foods was indigenous. Pecans had always seemed so exotic, something to feast on only at Christmas, when my parents would fill a big bowl with almonds, walnuts, Brazil nuts, and pecans to crack open and pick at for hours.

Back home in an urban wilderness a continent away from the Verde Valley, I keep a polished wooden bowl on my coffee table along with a mirror-steel nutcracker and a handmade plate to catch the shells. But only in fall and early winter--when the days feel the way they would when my dad started lighting our wood stove against the morning chill--does it seem right to indulge in that childhood pleasure.

Nuts have always struck me as seasonal. Maybe it's because we could never afford shelled walnuts and so the first step in baking Christmas cookies was sitting down with an old-fashioned spring-action nutcracker and prizing the meat out of impacted shells. (Collecting a cupful took forever, since my reward was one chunk to every two for the dough.) Or maybe it was all those brisk autumn Sundays spent hunting pinons--pine nuts--in the deep green forests on Mingus Mountain. Like the Yavapai Indians, whose artifacts we searched for on other days, my family gathered fallen cones off a prickly blanket of pine needles and levered out the tiny seeds to crack in our teeth. As with the Christmas walnuts, it was a lot of work for precious little meat.

Today fresh pine nuts are mostly memory. Not only are they all but impossible to find still in their shells, but the price for the imported kind has ballooned to as high as $18 a pound. (And I tend to nibble through the whole bags I buy for pesto.)

So I make sure my nut bowl stays full of other treasures. Peanuts, of course, don't count, as everyone proves by burrowing past them through a dish of mixed nuts in search of the good stuff. Goobers are fine as filler, as packing pellets to coddle the cashews, but most people eat them only out of resignation or desperation.

Real nuts, the best nuts, grow on trees, not in the dirt the way peanuts do. And in an age of tasteless tomatoes year-round, half the pleasure of eating nuts comes from knowing they're harvested only when ripe, in the few darkening months, right here in the United States: pecans in Georgia, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona; hazelnuts in Oregon and Washington. California grows nearly all of the other nuts in the usual bowl, the walnuts, almonds, and pistachios.

Granted, tropical Brazil nuts and cashews can be just as richly satisfying. Besides, they have a new virtue--as saviors of the South American rain forest. The nut trees thrive in the Amazon basin, where native people have always harvested them wild. Now a Cambridge, Massachusetts, group called Cultural Survival is promoting the nuts to foster this ecological and economic interdependence, a drive that has already landed Brazil nuts and cashews in pine nut-priced candy and cookies called Rainforest Crunch and in Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

But Brazil nuts are killers. They grow 16 to 18 at a time in tough coconut-size capsules that weigh five pounds each. When they ripen and fall from trees 150 feet tall, bad things happen to good harvesters without hard hats. For American consumers Brazil nuts have impact, too, but one that's more insidious. Not only are they in a league with the fattiest of the nuts, they carry one of the highest loads of artery-choking saturated fat (22 percent of their calories), right up there with red meat.

The other tropical treats prompt similar worries. Coconuts top Brazil nuts on the bad-for-your-arteries scale, with 75 percent of their calories from saturated fat. And macadamia nuts are the fattiest of all, weighing in with a staggering 95 percent of their calories from fat (14 percent saturated). But macadamias are proscribed by their price: Any more than a handful can make you wonder whether you really need all that heirloom silver.

Back before fat itself became the dietary demon, I always felt guilty whenever I dipped into a bowl of nuts at a bar--even when that snack was my supper. Like every old-line calorie-counter, I had the number on nuts: About 170 calories per handful of shelled meats (compared to plain popcorn's 12). And who eats just a handful?

Yet as I learned so many Christmases ago, the best way to keep the calories under control is to get out the nutcracker. I can eat a whole three-ounce can of shelled pecans while standing in front of the freezer; but it took me several days to work through the small bagful of whole ones I brought home from Arizona. Not only does shelling your own burn calories, but the nut meats, especially in season, always taste noticeably fresher.

Freshly cracked nuts certainly make a far better snack than corn chips or potato chips--with no salt and more than twice as much fiber. A handful of shelled almonds (two dozen kernels) delivers more fiber than two slices of oat bran bread.

What's more, as prehistoric peoples instinctively knew, nuts are a fine source of nutrients: amino acids, complex carbohydrates, vitamins E and B, magnesium, copper. Nutshells have been found worldwide in archeological sites dating to the Stone Age. In fact, the English word nut grew out of the Old English hnutu, from the Latin nux and nutriens, meaning "to nourish." The food value of nuts has even prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow them as a substitute for half the usual meat in school lunch programs--a change that echoes Ronald Reagan's decision to call ketchup a vegetable but that actually has substance. Last year California almond growers sold 18 million pounds of surplus nut butter to government nutrition programs for use in everything from the predictable cookies and sandwiches to salad dressings, stews, and hamburgers.

With their fat stigma, nuts should be about as easy to sell to weight-watchers as lard: All nuts (chestnuts excepted) are oily, averaging 80 percent of their calories from fat. And yet they're increasingly being promoted as health food. Almonds, for one, may not quite merit the hype lavished on them in a recent ad campaign that touts "an apple a day, a can a week," but they do have a special quality.

Two-thirds of the fat in almonds is monounsaturated, the kind with hearteningly neutral if not beneficial effects on cholesterol in the body. The Almond Board of California has gone to great lengths to spread this word, even sponsoring a special high-almond diet study at a lab near San Francisco. Human guinea pigs with moderately high cholesterol levels were put on a low-fat regimen: no butter, no hot dogs or sausages, no doughnuts, and only slim amounts of lean beef, poultry, and eggs. Into each day's cornucopia of breads, cereals, beans,pasta, fruits, and vegetables the researchers tossed one to three ounces of whole or ground natural almonds. That's two dozen to six dozen nuts a day.

You don't need a Ph.D. in nutrition to guess what happened: The subjects' cholesterol readings dropped to near healthy levels and stayed down throughout the study. That was the good news for them (and especially for California's almond growers). But hold on: The results would have been the same on a lean diet jazzed up with pecans, walnuts, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios--even paltry peanuts. And that's the good news for the rest of us. A handful of nuts (all right, several), freshly shelled and unsalted, is a snack with no claim to shame.

I wish now that I could plunge my hand back into the holiday nut bowl in an earlier era. There I'd find nuts with more flavor and an even longer history in American taste. Remember black walnuts, with their intense richness? They're now as hard to find as they once were to crack. Butternuts are the passenger pigeons of New England cooking: gone and forgotten. The flavor of hickory nuts is a ghost that haunts artificial extracts and exotic ice creams. And chestnuts, immortalized in Christmas carols and legends, almost all now come from Europe since a blight wiped out the American trees early this century.

Even so, things won't seem altogether bleak when I refill my own nut bowl this year. At least I know pecan trees have put down roots where I abandoned mine.

PHOTO (COLOR):It's the season for nuts, the snack with no claim to shame.




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